By Sarah Ooko, World Vision Senior Communications and Media Officer, Kenya
Miriam (not her real name) remembers only too well, the traumatic experience she went through about eight years ago at her home in West Pokot County, Kenya.
One morning, at just the age of 14, she was huddled into a hut near their village together with five other girls. Then, out of nowhere, an elderly woman entered the room and broke the news that they were going to undergo Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).
"This came as a shock to me. I was a Grade Five pupil, committed to my studies and hoping to have a bright future. As the woman sharpened her cutting tool, I was immobilised by fear. All the hopes I had for the future came crushing down and I really felt betrayed by my parents," she says.
“One by one, the elderly lady took turns in circumcising the girls. There were a lot of wails, tears and blood that filled the room. I was the last one and almost passed out. However, there was no escape route for me," she notes.
As fate would have it, Miriam was later forced to discontinue her education and marry an elderly man who had paid dowry to her father.
A year later, she conceived and almost died during the delivery process as a result of the stress, lack of sufficient food and suffering she experienced during her pregnancy.
"This man had no respect for me. He used to beat me and mistreat me. Sometimes, I would sleep hungry. The suffering was too much that I decided to escape one day, only to be brought back to my matrimonial home by my father. He said that my new home and place was with my husband," says Miriam.
She resigned to fate but escaped a year later, at the age of 15, when her situation became unbearable. This time round, Miriam was lucky to get support from her mother, who had since been informed about the work that World Vision was doing in the field of child protection.
This led to Miriam being rescued through the support of the organisation. She left her mother with the baby and came to reside at a safe house built by World Vision at one of the schools in West Pokot County. This gave her a second chance to pursue her education and achieve her life dreams.
Miriam is among the many girls from marginalised communities in Kenya that have over the years been subjected to harmful cultural practices such as FGM and child marriage, which infringe on children’s rights and prevent them from attaining their potential in life.
Once girls are circumcised, they are considered adults and ‘ripe’ for marriage. This prevents them from going to school and having brighter futures. Without education, many of them are predisposed to a lifetime of poverty as they will fail to qualify for jobs or get opportunities that can enable them to improve their economic status and participate effectively in nation building.
Worse still, FGM can cause adverse health effects such as severe bleeding, life-threatening infections, childbirth complications, problems with passing urine, as well as an increased risk of new-born deaths.
Edinah, a nursing officer in one of the health centres in West Pokot notes that she has witnessed with pain, the agony of many adult mothers who develop complications during delivery as a result of having undergone FGM.
“I am usually forced to refer many of them to higher level hospitals and in some cases, some mothers end up losing their lives,” she says.
According to Edinah, the circumstances are dire among younger women. “Once you circumcise girls in their early teens, they get married and bear children. So, you basically have a child carrying another child. This endangers the life of both the girl and the unborn baby.”
Aside from the Pokot community where Miriam resides, FGM is also widely practiced among the Somali, Rendille, Samburu and Maasai communities in Kenya.
Indeed, a 2017 report by the Kenya Anti-FGM Board and UNICEF indicated that the prevalence of FGM among girls and women aged between 10 and 49 years in the five communities is 74 percent, 96 percent, 78 percent, 72 percent and 51 percent respectively.
Alex Macharia, the Child Protection, Participation and Safeguarding Manager for World Vision Kenya notes that the organisation has been at the forefront, working with the government among other stakeholders to put an end to these retrogressive cultural practices in the country.
In the hot spot areas, World Vision has been building safe houses within schools to enable rescued girls like Miriam to continue learning in a protected environment that shelters them from harm.
The houses act as temporary shelters that protect the affected girls, even as World Vision embarks on an elaborate process for integrating them back into their families and communities, at an opportune time when their safety and protection can be guaranteed.
"This involves sensitising the parents about children's rights and enabling them to understand why they should not subject their daughters to such practices. They also learn of the significance of providing a loving and safe environment that enables children to thrive and lead happy lives. At the end, parents make a commitment that they will not harm the child being reintegrated into the family. Local authorities and child protection officers are also involved in the process as they play a key role in monitoring the child to ensure that she is safe," states Alex.
As part of its advocacy initiatives aimed at ending FGM, World Vision has also been promoting the Alternative Rites of Passage (ARP) model that enables girls to learn about the positive cultural values of their community without undergoing FGM. During these sessions, they are also empowered with life skills that enable them to effectively tackle life challenges.
"We also involve boys in the ARP training as we want them to take a lead in FGM prevention. In these communities, men are socialised to believe that suitable wives are women that have been circumcised. We help demystify these beliefs to enable them know the harms of FGM and realise that no girl should be subjected to it," says Alex.
Above all, World Vision is continuously working with the government in efforts aimed at strengthening the country's legal and justice system, to ensure that all perpetrators of FGM and other forms of violence against children are held accountable. This will help prevent many people from abusing children.